When we think about the gospels in terms of form criticism and their sitz im leben, we can make two quick observations about the New Testament as text. Both have to do with “genre” or the category of writing defined by particularly literary conventions and reader expectations.
First, the gospels are sort of like the genre we know as biography. But we should be careful not to conflate them as one and the same. Today, we read biographies as thick, tell-all stories about a single individual so that we can know the ins and outs of their lives. They are well-resaerched volumes written by someone other than the subject.
In the Hellenistic and Roman periods, there are literary forms that deal with the stories of people, but they aren’t necessarily narrated as facts. In fact they are designed to eulogize (say good words about… as during the time of death) a figure by any means necessary. You’ve seen as much in the tales we tell about the Founding Fathers like George Washington.
If you went to elementary school in the United States, you likely heard that George Washington cut down a cherry tree as child. And when confronted, by his father he confessed, saying, “I cannot tell a lie.”
Biographers of George Washington appear to agree that this event did not likely occur–that is, there’s no evidence for it. But to write off the story as “deceitful” is to miss out on a key way that human beings work. We cultivate communities through the stories we tell. Wayne Lavender, author of The Worldview of Redemptive Violence in the United States (Palgrave 2015), offers a more astute reading of this aspect of culture.
The story is True, with a capital T, and instructive in the sense that it helps create an image, an ideal person, and iconic representation fo the nation…But the story is False in that it never happened, or seems unlikely to have take place. (Lavender, 126.)
And were you to spend think historically-critically about the social function of these stories, you could quickly hypothesize why such a myth would be socially useful. A new political experiment needs figures that are above reproach in order to build followers. Discussions of origins are useful for presenting the qualities of heroic figures. I mean, have we not seen that already in the gospels. Think about Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus and Moses-like flight and Luke’s historical account and birth narrative). These myths are part of attempts to present Jesus as followable–a needed move in a burgeoning social movement.
We also get chronicles of figures deeds, statements of all the great things a person have done. We’ve already seen this in the Res Gestae Divi Augusti, put
In this they are also closely associated with myth as much as history. The distinction here is not about true v. false. Both myth and history are about what is true. We could say that one difference is about how authors and readers understand fact to operate. History is built upon the presumption of factuality. Myth is about the presumption of quality and character, regardless of factuality.
Now these literary forms take a variety of forms over this long swath of time and land that some abbreviate as the classic West. We see collections of deeds as in the Res Gestae Divi Augusti. We also get grander accounts of events, such as the Histories and Annals, written by the Early Roman senator, Tacitus. Together, they account for a narration of the Caesar’s works for most of the first century CE. They’re like an ancient version of those documentary films on a decade that CNN puts out.Embed URLEmbed
Were you to watch a documentary on a period that you lived through, you would be keenly aware that the author of such a work necessarily makes choices about what to include and exclude. Similarly, you’ll note that the author takes poetic license to connect the dots between events to help you feel some kind of way about the events that transpired. This is aided by hindsight, literary/storytelling techniques, and the author’s own perspective.
One technique used in Ancient Greek teachings, according to Aristotle, was the parable. Aristotle describes these as little stories used to solidify a teaching. Here the model would be that of someone like Socrates who used little stories to confirm the rationality of philosophical statements–making the abstract concrete, as it were. In the gospels we see Jesus using parables to concretize the idea of kingship and kingdoms. Rather than dictating the political science behind an alternative vision for the world as God would have it, he supplements his teachings of the Jewish scriptures with parables.
Jesus’s parables are usually short, open to interpretation (barring explanations added by evangelists), and slices of life in a pastoral/agriculturalist society. In Luke 15, we see parables that have to do with the economy of God’s kingdom.
While parables were part of Hellenistic tradition, it’s important to remember that some form of storytelling is present across most societies. But as we think about the techniques that the evangelists use to convey the good news, we should pay serious attention to the choices they make in deploying these stories.
To help give you a sense of all this might entail, I want you to write a lost parable that could thematically be in Luke 15, but you are free to use your own sitz im leben to convey that theme. In other words, you can talk about airplanes and shooting starts alike.